Musicians! In! Spaaaaaaace!
Once, to dream of going to space meant getting a PhD in science and training your body and your mind for years before even getting on the radar of someone at NASA. But no longer is outer space reserved for astronauts. Space travel is getting awful cheap (if by “cheap” you mean the price of a private jet or a loft in Tribeca), and little by little, scientists are being joined by run-of-the-mill billionaires on their trips to the great beyond.
Opera singer Sarah Brightman is the most recent to declare her plans. She has reserved a seat on a Soyuz spacecraft set to travel to the International Space Station in 2015 (some say she outbid NASA, others say that’s baloney, but in either case, she paid upwards of $51 million for the chance). She has also reportedly passed all the medical and psychological tests for the journey, and now simply has months of rigorous training to do before she departs.
She hopes to record a song in space with an orchestra on Earth, which would make her the first professional musician to perform from space. This, like anyone who’s tried to play music over Skype can attest, poses some challenges. You’d have to overcome the delay that comes from sending a signal to Earth and then waiting for one to return back to you. This would most likely require the soloist to perform without the orchestra, and have the orchestra — and one very strong conductor — play along with the video feed that comes to them. This follow-along method is similar to the way film orchestras record, and totally doable, but with the lack of interaction between the orchestra and the soloist, you could argue that it’s really not live music. She’s working on it, regardless, and I look forward to seeing what comes of it. Meanwhile, she’s touring to promote her latest album, Dreamchaser, which features classical pieces inspired by (and interpreted as) humans exploring the heavens.
But that’s only if Muse doesn’t beat her to the punch. They’re much earlier in the process than Brightman, of course, having only speculated about the idea to numerous media outlets. According to a 2011 Guardian article:
“Maybe I’ve seen The Jetsons too many times,” frontman Matt Bellamy told the Sun. Muse have had several discussions “about playing in space”, he said, “sometimes very coherent conversations and sometimes very late at night, but it’s for real.” …
“I’m thinking of approaching Richard Branson to see if we could do it on his spacecraft,” Bellamy said. “I do think it will be possible in the future and I’m sure it will happen in my lifetime. We’d love to be part of that.”
A good portion of the band’s work has been inspired by outer space — songs like “Dead Star” and “Supermassive Black Hole” allude to astronomical phenomena — but a good portion has also been inspired by freaky conspiracy theories about 9/11 and the CIA, so I’m not so sure I’m rooting for them.
If they do go, they won’t face the troubles that Sarah Brightman will, since they’ll all be playing in the same place. But they will be struggling with the challenge of playing guitar in zero-G, a challenge already faced by…
Chris Hadfield! Everybody’s favorite astronaut, and the reason that Sarah Brightman qualified her plans for being the first professional musician in space. Because Hadfield, while not a pro musician by any stretch of the imagination, plays guitar and sings. He recently co-wrote a song about space with Barenaked Ladies frontman Ed Robertson, then performed it live from the International Space Station! Watch the video, if you haven’t already:
According to the Canadian Space Agency, Hadfield hasn’t been the first musician to bring his axe up with him. Cosmonauts and NASA astronauts living on Mir had a guitar, and ISS crew members have had access to a flute, a keyboard, a saxophone, a didgeridoo, and a parlor guitar. To bring any instrument onboard, it first needs to undergo safety testing. The keyboard currently on the ISS had to be both tested for electromagnetic radiation and heated to 50°C (122° F) to ensure it didn’t give off any toxic gases in extreme temperatures. And here I was worrying about the action.
As far as playing guitar in space, there’s a bit of a learning curve. With the freedom of zero-G, Hadfield actually had to re-learn how to fret:
“When you’re moving fast on the neck, you often miss the frets. On Earth, you’re used to the weight of your arm, which helps you track where your hand’s going to go…Without gravity, you tend to overshoot the mark.”
I wasn’t able to find a definitive answer for how Hadfield and the Barenaked Ladies managed to perform together without a delay, but if I’m to believe the vast majority of internet commenters, Hadfield pre-recorded his part and sent it down to be played over by the band. The feeble conversation between Hadfield and Robertson seems to back this up. This is sort of disappointing, but I really can’t imagine an alternative. Maybe one day we’ll come up with instantaneous communication tools that will let people on Earth and people in space play together in real time, but right now, we’re just going to have to make do with parlor tricks.